Cafeteria realism

January 4, 2016 § 35 Comments

Nobody is consistently anti-realist, not even in the domains of morality and economic value, where modernity has relentlessly trained us to see ourselves and our subjective preferences and perceptions as the truncated measure of all things.  It is natural for people to find it troubling that the pinnacle of everything they been taught to value seems to be base perversion: that human dignity has come to mean defining people by their sexual deviancy, and compassion has come to mean killing off the inconvenient and intransigent.

Conservatives respond to the situation conservatively, by denying that perversion and murder are in objective fact the telos of the object of their basic political loyalties. But not everyone is capable of the depth of denial required to remain blind to the fact that liberalism is an unprecedented engine of perversion and murder.

Things like Islam, even though they are horribly false understood objectively, appeal to people mired in ‘every day is opposite day modernity who can feel that something is wrong with making our preferences and perceptions the measure of all things in the areas that matter most. Islam appeals to some people simply because it allows wrongthought about what everyone can’t help but know instinctively: that a reality independent of our self-obsessed cartesian/Manichean selves exists at all, even though the external reality of Islam is just the voluntarist arbitrary Will of Allah.

People naturally yearn for authority, despite the fact that modernity relentlessly indoctrinates us with the idea that to be human simply is to be subject to no authority, is to be self-created through reason and will, subject to no man.  Islam appeals to effeminate moderns for the same reason that dark triad bad boys appeal to modern women. She becomes the bad boy’s harem whore despite being a feminist because she ultimately cannot deny her own nature.

One of the most rabid, raging, militant feminists I know is a young Moslem woman. This is not the contradiction that other people think that it is; at least, it is no more a contradiction than any other relation between a particular liberal (a person with a strong commitment to liberalism) and liberalism itself.

Modernity isn’t consistent anti-realism, because there is no such thing.

Modernity is cafeteria realism.

§ 35 Responses to Cafeteria realism

  • CJ says:

    Just so. It was pretty funny to see some of the same people who applauded Bruce Jenner denounce Rachel Dolezal and Shaun King.

  • […] Source: Zippy Catholic […]

  • Johannes says:

    How might any of this relate to the theological theme of “personalism?” I have real trouble understanding the latter.

  • Zippy says:


    I’m not sure what it means either beyond JPII’s basic point that treating a human person as nothing but a means to an end – that is, in a manner appropriate only to objects not subjects – is a very general category of sin. It seems like an orthogonal subject from realism/anti-realism offhand – though I certainly have not done due diligence and can’t really speak from the point of view of someone who knows what he is talking about. Qua realist I agree with the basic premise: a human subject is not the same kind of thing deontologically as mere objects or raw materials.

    Modern people have redefined human dignity to mean treating a person’s defects as if those defects were his essence. The essence of the homosexual person (under this view) just is that he craves sodomy or other perverse acts, so disapproval of sodomy – or mere recognition that a craving for sodomy is objectively disordered – becomes hatred of the homosexual qua ‘person’.

    It is easy to see how combining this literally perverse understanding of ‘dignity’ with JPII’s basic deontological contention could be used to produce just the sort of obfuscatory sophistical casuistry in which modern post cartesian sexual anti-realists revel. So there is that.

  • Johannes says:

    Right on your last paragraph. I guess the question is this. Do people actually go around treating others as objects and things–and not as subjects? I mean, in modernity, we treat everyone’s subjectivity very highly. What do you (or others) think?

  • Zippy says:


    Do people actually go around treating others as objects and things–and not as subjects?

    Absolutely. To continue the example, sodomy (and contraception, and masturbation, etc) by their nature qua behaviors, when deliberately chosen, treat the self and frequently other human beings as objects of gratification.

    Usury treats a person as if he were property: specifically treating the borrower’s personal IOU as if it were an object owned by the lender for which he charges the borrower rent.

    Examples can be multiplied.

    Post cartesian dualism in general results in an incapacity to think holistically about ourselves as incarnate subjects. So when dealing with persons we moderns flit equivocally between the reductionism of treating a human being as if he were nothing but purely subjective experience on the one hand, and as if he were nothing but atoms mindlessly following the laws of physics on the other. Radical subjectivism and radical materialism are two sides of the same anti-realist coin: the ghost in the machine. This inevitably ends up in treating reality as ghostly noumena and persons as just machines.

  • vishmehr24 says:

    Does this Burke quotation has any realist meaning?

    “It was soon discovered, that the forms of a free, and the ends of an arbitrary Government, were things not altogether incompatible.”

    —Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents

    What could he mean by a “free government” and an “arbitrary government”?

  • […] cafeteria realists, because they are cafeteria realists, cannot tell (or selectively project incapacity to tell) the […]

  • Johannes says:

    Thanks for your reply Zippy. What I am thinking of is this: that maybe personalism is creating the “object” strawman, when, in fact, just about everything we do is (with people) is “Intersubjective.” If I am counting on my wife to give me my supper (for which I am ravenous) after a long day in the fields, then I am “using” her as an “object” in a sense–a supper provider. But even here–How does she know what I like? How do I know that she will provide something decent? How do I know she loves or fears or pities me enough to cook me something. And so on.

    I just don’t see how humans can treat one another (even potentially) as objects, like, say, a wrench. Even the sodomites have to agree on something, which is a basic form of intersubjectivity.

    Here is another thought. Does Christian personalism have to create the “object” strawman to account for sin, when, as such, personalism rather straightforwardly deals with intersubjectivity?

  • GJ says:


    I’m not familiar with Christian personalism, but it should be possible to formulate a counter-Cartesian understanding that rejects the subject-object dichotomy that makes anti-realists of us all as we swing wildly back and forth (as Zippy noted) from considering humans as either objects or subjects. To imbue ‘person’ with this kind of understanding is fraught with dangers given all the baggage the word is loaded with but then again it still connotes the desired sense of some kind of special quality.

  • Zippy says:


    If I am counting on my wife to give me my supper (for which I am ravenous) after a long day in the fields, then I am “using” her as an “object” in a sense–a supper provider.

    That we find value in what we do for each other is not the same as treating a person as nothing but a means to an end, the way we would treat (say) a wrench. It wouldn’t be intrinsically immoral for you to casually toss a wrench into the furnace, but it would be intrinsically immoral for you to casually toss your wife into the furnace. Sodomy is treating a human being (the self and another human being) as if they were essentially something they are not. And this is the case no matter who does and does not agree or believe that it is the case. “Two plus two equals five,” and all that.

    Mind you, I am not sure that the language of personalism is necessarily helpful. Treating a person as nothing but a means to an end basically means (as far as I can tell) treating him in a manner contrary to his telos, or more generally contrary to the kind of thing that he is: as if he had the essence of something that he is not.

    As with all moral questions at bottom what is at issue in choosing intrinsically immoral actions is a lie, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good, to swipe more words from JPII. Every moral failure is a kind of lie or at least a falsehood, which should be immediately and unequivocally repudiated once one realizes its falsity lest it become a morally culpable lie. Even a failure because of ignorance or some other non-culpable mistake resulting from our human limits (like a surgeon slipping and accidentally cutting the aorta) is a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.

    But there are limits as to how much can be captured by language. We all know what ‘choosing’ is, what ‘seeing’ is, what ‘understanding’ is, etc — in order to talk about things at all we already have to mutually know what we are talking about. So maybe personalist language is helpful for some folks. Maybe it distorts the picture for more people than it helps.

  • snowdensjacket0x0x0 says:

    Well I’ve started to support Islam because they are literally the only group that opposes liberal degeneracy. For awhile I was going to an LDS church and later an orthodox church but I had a personal test, which is that I want to try to restore marriage and make adultery illegal again. The only group I can find, anywhere, that shares this value with me is Islam. The Mormons and Catholics have adultery listed as a sin in their ten commandants but they are fully in support of the modern farce that is marriage.

    Sure it’s insane but what other choices do I have? They are the only people who support the Bible.

  • CJ says:

    Hm. I must’ve missed the part of the Bible that says you should deny that Jesus is the Son of God to join a group that wants to criminalize adultery.

  • Patrick says:

    “Sure it’s insane but what other choices do I have?”

    You could start your own religion.

  • Zippy, I was reading an old drawn-out thread between you and Kristor at the Orthosphere, about SSM vs. false Eucharists, and it prompted a thought. It’s a common thing to say that in modern times men have lost the sense of sin, and that it must be regained. But the ‘conservatives’ who say this, I think, have themselves also lost the sense of sin, and have renamed the sense of culpability to take its place. This turns out to be the same thing as the subjectivizing liberal distortion, but worse because (according to the conservative norm) it deludes honest men and gives cover to the overall destruction. They both push similar moral principles, with one side willing to use the word “sin” more often.

    Having started to form this distinction between sense of sin and sense of culpability, I see in myself a great deal of damage: the presence of the latter has masked a deficit of the former.

    The theological consequences of culpability conceptually eclipsing sin are several and seem to match up to characteristically modern errors about (e.g.) ecumenism, hell, and virtue. I think this has also been a mind-block for me understanding more fully why these are errors.

    I want to get to the bottom of this and keep scraping out the crap from my head—if you think there’s anything to what I’ve said or you’ve already written about it before, I hope you’ll let me know.

  • Scott W. says:

    But the ‘conservatives’ who say this, I think, have themselves also lost the sense of sin, and have renamed the sense of culpability to take its place.

    Could you provide a concrete example of this? I’ve heard plenty of conservatives adopt consequentialist moral calculations, but I don’t have much experience of them excusing or trivializing sin under diminished culpability (or imputability).I assume you agree that culpability is a real and serious component of evaluating the morality of acts. To wit: one is less responsible for his acts with a gun pointed at his head than without.

  • Zippy says:

    Ioannes Barbarus:

    Pope John Paul II wrote a whole encyclical on that very subject. There are a lot of money quotes, but here is one:

    It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good.

    It is certainly true that conservatives (as the term is usually understood) have their own cartesian subjectivist ‘tricks’, if you will, in which they cloak the things they want to hide or excuse. “Prudential judgment” is a classic. Ignorance and subjectivity are the eighth and ninth sacraments these days, invocations of radical subjectivity which taketh away the sins of the world, for everyone not just those on the political left.

    And it is true that almost everyone wants to truncate the specifically moral implications of objectively evil actions once we’ve dispensed with culpability; as if once we’ve established that we didn’t know that we were eating babies everything is OK. We’ve seen this in post facto justification of the Iraq war, just as an off-the-top-of-my-head example: as long as we genuinely thought Saddam had WMD’s he was going to give to al Qaeda, going to war was justified, no sackcloth and ashes are required, not even just a forthright admission of a mistake and of responsibility for whatever bad consequences have arisen from that mistake. Examples can be multiplied.

    I don’t have any ’roundup’ or summary of my own thoughts, but I have written here and there about the tyranny of the subjective. There is a kind-of roundup of an old multi-post discussion on vasectomies and their implications here.

    Suppose Billy mows the neighbor’s lawn, so that he can earn a little money, so that he can take his best girl to the movies. Aquinas and Anscombe tell him that it is only morally licit to take money for mowing the lawn if his motivation is to cut the grass: if he intends to cut the grass in the concrete action he chooses: if mowing the grass is the object of his act, the objective behavior he chooses.

    Modern people interpret the ‘intentional’ or ‘motivated’ bit to mean something about their purely interior subjective Cartesian world, when all that is being said is that Billy must choose a kind of objective action which is a grass-cutting action, the kind of action which produces mowed lawns rather than some other sort of action: he must choose the kind of action which makes a potentially mowed lawn become an actually mowed lawn. Running a mower around over the concrete driveway doesn’t count: it doesn’t have the right objective motivation or object, that is, it isn’t the right kind of behavior. Sodomy, masturbation, contraception, etc are like running a mower over a concrete parking lot or driveway, deliberately avoiding the grass.

    Now maybe running a mower over the concrete driveway and ignoring the grass was a matter of misunderstanding on Billy’s part. Maybe Billy was just stupid or ignorant, didn’t understand the connection between his behavior and getting paid. But Billy still didn’t actually mow the lawn and does not actually deserve to be paid. In fact he may owe the neighbor a free lawn mowing, because he used up the gas, caused wear and tear on the mower, and screwed up the neighbor’s outdoor cocktail party.

    Moral obligations are not truncated or lopped off by pleas of ignorance, even when those pleas of ignorance are true and that ignorance is truly invincible, which is rarely the case. Becoming pregnant ‘unintentionally’ through consensual sex is like mowing the grass ‘unintentionally’. It is possible in principle for an insane, retarded, hypnotized, or extremely ignorant person to do it, I suppose. In reality we almost always know what we are doing. But even if Bob got his wife’s identical twin pregnant entirely by accident, out of ignorance that she was not his own wife, it does not follow that all of his moral obligations which follow from getting her pregnant disappear.

  • GJ says:

    Ioannes Barbarus:

    This story has always stuck with me.

    Liberal democracies require ignorance as purifying sacrament, for the voters need to excuse themselves: as long as they insist that they have power, they have to answer for the consequences of the exercise of that power (ie. what the elected representatives do), and the easiest defense is ‘I didn’t know’.

  • Alex says:

    Johannes, I may be wrong here, and if so I am sorry for wasting your time.

    But as far as I know, personalism is simply the proper observance that in each and every human being there is a image and likeness of God. As far as you behave and believe otherwise, you go against the idea of personalism. A clear example of this is the use of pornography. Pornography goes, surely enough, against the import of sex itself, reducing what was made to constitute one’s family into a kind of simple pleasure.

    However, it also goes against personalism. The people involved in the film are seen as a kind of sex toy, to simply be used to sate one’s lust. This is very different, for instance, from when you go to a supermarket and pay the cashier without even looking at his or her face because you are distracted. Someone could argue you are using the cashier the same as you would be using an automatic machine. However, being a cashier is not a debasing thing in itself and while paying attention to those around you is a very nice thing, it is not an actual sin to simply be distracted.

    So, using your example about your wife, it is not against personalism to expect her to cook your meal when you get home. But it would be if you started to see her as only good for that.

  • Johannes says:

    Thanks, Alex, for that.

    My point was about the way that intersubjectivity is laced through most of what we do. (Personalism, as someone like Husserl does it, does not really necessitate the theological beliefs, such as imago dei, I don’t believe.)

    Now, your porn example was important (as are some of Zippy’s). That is a sort of distant objectivism. But here again, in most every sort of embodied encounter, there is something else. It is really hard, I would think, in an embodied encounter to use someone as *nothing but* a means to an end (i.e., objects). It seems that that was what Personalism set out to prove in the first place. Our “ends” have a quality of intersubjectivity, even if they are not good.

    I hope I am not cutting off my nose to spite my face, because I really, really think there is something important about the Theology of the Body stuff, which is personalist. Likewise, there is much to explore about subjectivity that is not in first order, moral or essentialist. Cognitive psychology really does enrich the fund of knowledge. Aesthetics also legitimately relies, in part, on a phenomenology of the subjective. A self-in-God really does have subjective realities.

    I guess I just need to get off my duff and get deeper into the meaning of personalism. It is probably a big gap in my philosophical education.

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